Universal holds a special place in my heart. Being a devoted fan of horror movies, some of my earliest memories in this genre are intertwined with the Universal Monsters: Dracula, Frankenstein, Wolfman and The Mummy.

These legendary characters held immense significance for a young and impressionable enthusiast. I was captivated not only by the narratives, but also by the ingenious special effects that brought these creatures to life. The presence of Bela Lugosi, Lon Chaney and Boris Karloff graced my room, adorning everything from posters to Aurora Monster model kits. My affinity lies with those entities that stir up the night’s mysteries. Even in adulthood, I find myself frequently attending their Halloween Horror Nights, particularly drawn to the haunted houses that pay homage to the original icons of terror.

Despite possessing an impressive collection of monster movies to draw inspiration from, Universal should rightfully be the reigning champion of all things related to horror. However, it appears the studio has encountered challenges in creating major hits using these iconic monsters. For every successful film, such as The Mummy in 1999, Universal released complete flops like Van Helsing in 2004 and another Mummy reboot in 2017. The franchises have been plagued by subpar narratives and lackluster acting, issues that have persisted throughout several decades.

The Last Voyage of the Demeter is the latest offering in the classic monster genre. The film focuses on the crew of the Demeter, the cargo ship from Chapter 7 (“The Captain’s Log”) in the 1897 novel, Dracula, by Bram Stoker. The ship is commissioned to bring several crates to England by an unknown person. Along the voyage, ship doctor Clemens (Corey Hawkins) finds a stowaway named Anna (Aisling Franciosi), who is gravely sick with an unknown ailment.

While first mate Wojchek (David Dastmalchian) and the rest of the crew want to throw her overboard to prevent her sickness from possibly spreading, Captain Elliot (Liam Cunningham) allows her to stay onboard. But during the nights, a mysterious entity (Javier Botet)  roams the decks, killing man and beast alike, draining their bodies of blood. It is only a matter of time before the creature, or the elements, decides the fate of all who sailed on this doomed vessel.

(from left) Captain Eliot (Liam Cunningham), Abrams (Chris Walley) and Clemens (Corey Hawkins) in The Last Voyage of the Demeter, directed by André Øvredal. © 2023 Universal Studios and Amblin Entertainment. All Rights Reserved.

I had high hopes for The Last Voyage of the Demeter, but unfortunately, this movie joins the list of Universal’s unsuccessful endeavors to breathe new life into the classic monster movies, or even launch the ambitious Dark Universe concept. The cast delivers commendable performances, particularly Corey Hawkins and Liam Cunningham, who deserve recognition for their roles. However, the writing left much to be desired. The narrative exhibited numerous plot holes, and some of the dialogue felt contrived, failing to seamlessly integrate into the scenes.

A glaring example of this dialogue occurs toward the film’s conclusion. The topic of racism is introduced during the course of the story. Dr. Clemens is subjected to derogatory language by some of his fellow shipmates when his decisions diverge from their consensus. His stated mission is to comprehend the coexistence of evil within a world predominantly good, but he faces opposition due to the color of his skin. Yet, during a heated exchange with Wojchek, where collaboration to devise a plan is expected, Clemens veers off into a monologue about confronting racism.

This diversion felt jarringly out of place, as if the writers momentarily lost sight of the scene’s purpose and inserted commentary on the human condition. This misstep greatly detracted from the potential moment of camaraderie among the crew, which could have symbolized a glimmer of hope.

Since the audience is already familiar with the vessel’s journey in the original Dracula legend, there is a lack of engaging surprise. The Last Voyage of the Demeter encounters the same challenge of predictability as films like Titanic and Oppenheimer. In such instances, movies must craft an engrossing narrative to captivate viewers. Both Titanic and Oppenheimer excel in storytelling, shifting the focus away from the ultimate conclusion, instead emphasizing the characters’ experiences.

Unfortunately, The Last Voyage of the Demeter falls short of establishing a solid foundation. The characters are portrayed in rather one-dimensional ways. The doctor is unwaveringly devoted to preserving life, the captain embodies stoicism and innate leadership, and the first mate is a hot-tempered subordinate who still respects authority. Regrettably, these roles remain largely unchanged.

Even Dracula, himself, struggles to emerge from the shadow of a malevolent creature, solely driven by survival through murder. His appearance throughout the entire film retains a Nosferatu-like quality. Instead of relegating him to a mere boogeyman, the writers could have integrated him more profoundly into the storyline.

In my version, I would reimagine Dracula assuming the guise of a crew member, or perhaps a stowaway. Leveraging his supernatural charm, he would sow seeds of deception and mistrust among the crew. He could manipulate Wojchek against the captain, fomenting a quasi-mutinous atmosphere. Dracula, far from being a mere primal predator, would showcase his remarkable intelligence and mastery of manipulation. As he feeds upon the crew, his powers would steadily amplify. This alternative narrative approach would have shattered the characters’ one-dimensional mold, offering a plethora of new storylines throughout the voyage.

I rate The Last Voyage of the Demeter two out of five stars. Universal’s efforts fall short of achieving a meaningful impact. The anticipation was palpable among Universal fans for the emergence of the Dark Universe, a horror counterpart to the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Unfortunately, with the setback of The Mummy in 2017, those aspirations have waned considerably. It almost seems as though Universal is now creating these movies primarily to evoke nostalgia for the illustrious golden era of horror. It is my sincere hope that the writers and the studio will find a way to manifest this ambitious universe into reality.